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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

sunny-afternoon-programmeI’ll take it as read that Sunny Afternoon is this hugely enjoyable and successful award-winning musical, that it’s much more than just juke box theatre, and that it is performed  superbly by a multi-talented cast.  What we have here is ensemble playing at its best, full of energy, emotion and period feel.  (And of course there had to be dolly birds).  I’m taking the Kinks history for granted too.

So, I record just a few things here that occurred, after watching the touring cast at Milton Keynes Theatre, to one who has (for his sins) read all the Kinks biographies and was championing the songs long before the cliché of Ray Davies as ‘national institution’ was a given, before that soubriquet started being attributed liberally to any old Tom, Dick and Harriet.

Obviously much had to be telescoped into or left out of this telling of the story, but I thought the crucial dramatic band episodes were mostly nicely handled and worked well as theatrical moments too, in particular:

  • the ousting of co-manager Robert Wace as singer; ’50s crooner blown away mid-song by Dave’s blues guitar
  • the full enactment complete with legendary insults of the Cardiff incident where Mick Avory thought he’d killed Dave on stage in mid-show with a drum pedal
  • a collage of the all action run-ins with the unions and other awkward Americans leading to the band being banned from the States for 3 years.
  • (although I have to say, as a veteran reader and listener of the Kinks story, I thought the partial destruction of the Little Green Amp section a bit hammy, to tell the truth)

I particularly liked the way the songs were chosen and used, not necessarily chronologically, and not necessarily exclusively from the time frame of the show (1964-69), with some put into unexpected mouths as the story unfolded:

  • so Days is started by posh-boy managers Robert and Grenville when they’re given the boot; a lovely and powerful acapella spell cast over the audience as most of the gang join in
  • Pete Quaife’s exit to A rock’n’roll fantasy, the latest song in the canon featured, from 1978’s Misfits album; one of my least favourite Kinks songs, as it happens (but let’s just leave it as that being my problem for the time being).  (A friend with his own Kinks website describes “Dan is a fan” as the worst line Ray ever wrote; it has also led in fandom to disputes as to who Dan was, with pathetic claim and counter claims).
  • remind me, was Dead End Street, featured early in the show, sung initially by Ma and Pa Davies?
  • that passage in the play a lot of reviews mention, when Ray is calling wife Rasa on the phone from America, he singing Sitting in my hotel, and she the sublime I go to sleep as counterpoint; and yes, you really could have heard a pin drop.  Extraordinary moment.  I seem to recall she did a touching Tired of waiting directed at Ray as well.

A few other things less easy to categorise:

  • I was never a fan of the phenomenon, but that brilliant and witty drum solo at the start of the second half, after one had got over the initial shock of its unexpectedly being there at all, had me (and the audience) engrossed; I think it must have been a particularly good night because I thought I saw some congratulatory banter from the non-acting musician tucked away at the back of the stage.  Proof positive, I would say, that Ray does not share Dave’s famously derogatory opinion of Mick Avory’s skills.  Andrew Gallo take a bow.  (Have to report, too, a certain bewilderment for me that he was a spitting image of my niece’s husband; kept thinking, What’s James doing up there?)
  • the recreation of the genesis of Waterloo Sunset in the recording studio was beautifully done
  • Ryan O’Donnell has to get a name-check here as entering fully into the spirit of Ray; while Mark Newnham actually looked like Dave (but had a better voice).  The whole cast was tremendous (with the bonus of  Grenville and Robert being proficient on trombone) and their CVs refreshingly free of the usual Casualty, The Bill and Midsomer Murders credits.
  • a lot of football metaphors thrown in, but I thought they made a bit of a rush job with the collage of Sunny Afternoon, the show’s title song, and England winning the World Cup
  • Class: in the US Ray and Dave play up as working class socialists, and it is made quite clear that the touted classless society of the early ’60s was, if not an illusion, a very short-lived phenomena
  • a couple of neat ‘time traveller’ jokes
  • is Sunny Afternoon set to be the middle part of a very broadly defined trilogy?  I wonder this because of the way it ended, with Allen Klein reintroducing them to the American stage.  So we’ve had the Davies family background in more detail with the earlier rather fine but never made it to the West End Come Dancing musical, albeit with a fictional plot overlaid, and Ray is talking about “something epic” when the Americana – the what came next – CD is released?
  • so Allen Klein: I must admit I hadn’t realised that it was his team that cleared the legal or bureaucratic decks that allowed the Kinks to work in America again, and although there was the dramatic moment in the show when Ray made sure they didn’t sign another damaging management deal with him after he’d sorted a few things out (unlike the Beatles and the Stones), Klein’s voice announcing their return to a big New York venue seemed an odd way to end the narrative.  As if “the rest is history”, except for most people, it isn’t.  Apart from Lola.
  • indeed, I have to say I thought the admittedly joyous singalong clap-along audience on their feet finale of Lola was a bit of an artistic cop-out, a populist failure of nerve, seeing as the song Lola – the one, of course, the whole world knows – had no point of reference with the basic narrative in the show that had gone before.  Don’t worry, I was up on my feet with the rest of the audience, but I’d have preferred a reprise of Sunny Afternoon.
  • Great night, nevertheless!  I think I can see why a few of my Kinks fan community friends have seen the London cast show many, many times.  At certain times, excitement revived, when the lads picked up their instruments you could close your eyes and …  As well as all the fun.

shakespeare-circleMeanwhile, 400 years earlier …

Exactly 400 years had passed between his birth and the start of the action in Sunny Afternoon and You really got me being released, but there are still many things that are unclear about the life of William Shakespeare, born 1564.  Friday before last (Sept 2), in the local library in Stony we had a couple of world-class superstars of Shakespeare biography introducing their book The Shakespeare circle: an alternative biography (Cambridge UP, 2015).  The need for “Imaginative biography” is the phrase they used, if I remember correctly.  It was a fascinating evening, all done without the help of  a ss-shak-400PowerPoint presentation.  Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells made for a fascinating double act, a splendid mix of wit, friendship and scholarship, their depth of knowledge staggering (but then this is what they’ve been doing for most of their adult lives).  Here’s the publisher’s puff, because I feel like being lazy:

This original and enlightening book casts fresh light on Shakespeare by examining the lives of his relatives, friends, fellow-actors, collaborators and patrons both in their own right and in relation to his life. Well-known figures such as Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton are freshly considered; little-known but relevant lives are brought to the fore, and revisionist views are expressed on such matters as Shakespeare’s wealth, his family and personal relationships, and his social status. Written by a distinguished team, including some of the foremost biographers, writers and Shakespeare scholars of today, this enthralling volume forms an original contribution to Shakespearian biography and Elizabethan and Jacobean social history.

All great fun, honest.  50 years ago, in year 2 of Sunny Afternoon, I did a sixth form project on the question of ‘Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ prompted by John Peirce, an inspirational English teacher who knew of my keenness for Mark Twain and guided me to a late work of his, published 1909, Is Shakespeare dead?  (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry).  There Twain details humourously and not unseriously the known facts of the actor William Shakespeare’s life and compares them with the width and breadth of knowledge displayed in the plays, and promotes a conspiracy theory that has been repeated over the decades, invoking various other writers for any number of reasons, as the true authors.  All nonsense, of course, and research has found a lot more about the Bard in the century hence.

No-one directly brought up the question of authorship, but one of the questions from the floor invoked the supposed “missing years” in the documented life of Shakespeare, which some have used to reconcile the mismatch Twain highlighted – did he go to Italy, for instance, and pick up all the knowledge thereof that’s there in the plays?  Apart from the fact that London was a major cosmopolitan trading port where all sorts of things could be picked up in bars etc., Wells and Edmondson said that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries also have big gaps in their documented existence, indeed one would expect it, given the times.  Anyway, mention of ‘the missing years’ reminded me of John Prine‘s rather wonderful part-song part-recitation  Jesus the missing years, which I leave you with here, to enjoy:

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“You got a blog, right?”
Ann snapped her fingers. “That’s what’s been missing from my life.”
Carl Hiaasen: Star island

I’ve always been partial to a game of Scrabble, deeply frustrating though it can be when you’re stuck with a rack full of vowels or, indeed, consonants.  But never mind that.  It’s just that Scrabble has made an appearance in the last two books I’ve been reading.  Synchronicity or what?  What, probably.

A game of Scrabble is an illicit pleasure in the Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood‘s classic dystopian novel ‘The handmaid’s tale‘ (1985), while in the State of Florida it’s a sardonic throwaway line from kidnappee Ann DeLusia, pretty much the only decent, sane and grounded character in Carl Hiaasen‘s inspired tales another kind of American excess in  ‘Star Island‘ (2011).

It has always struck me there’s a problem with fiction set in the milieu of popular entertainment, the music industry in particular.  Apart from the art, something else is always missing.  The supper-realism.  The real thing just cannot be beat.  How to successfully invent someone like Mick Jagger, say, never mind Macca’s marriages, Madonna’s career, or that meat dress?   Hiaasen is up to it; that meat dress could have been one of his.  ‘Star Island‘ is a grotesquerie concerning itself with – or at least this narrative is hung on – celebrity culture, with a girl singer who can’t sing and her entourage; think Lindsay Lohan, Britney, Paris all rolled into one.  All in the context of Hiaasen’s regard for his native Florida and his ongoing environmental, social and political concerns.  It is so righteously funny I read it twice straight off and laughed louder the second time.

I’ll try and be brief.  There are basically two nicely interwoven narrative strands, united by the involvement of  one Skink.  Those familiar with Hiaasen’s work will be delighted to hear that Skink appears early in this book and that the remarkable aforementioned Annie – “She enriched my outlook on humanity” – even manages to get him into a designer suit and a night club called ‘Pubes’ at the climax.

For those who’ve not had the pleasure of his acquaintance before, let me tell you about Skink.  Born Clinton Tyree, he was a college football star and authentic Vietnam war hero before briefly getting himself elected Governor of Florida, shortly after which political success, 30 years ago, he took refuge in the mangrove swamps:

Decades of hermitage had kept him barely on keel but his turbulent aversions never waned. He’d fled the governor’s mansion with his values intact but his idealism extinguished, his patience smashed to dust. Politics had scrambled his soul much worse than the war, and he left behind in Tallahassee not only his name but the discredited strategy of forbearance and compromise. The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – hijacked by greedy suck-worms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous.

One of the story lines concerns the fate of a crooked land developer – and it would have been bad enough if he’d been legit – who, for his sins, ends up tied to a poisonwood tree, naked bar a nappy securing to his person a source of further exquisite swollen torture.  I say ends up – that is actually just the beginning of his troubles.

Briefly [Skink] thought of Jackie Sebago, the turd merchant, and wondered if the doctors had kept count of all the sea urchin quills they’d pulled from his necrotic ball sack. The photos must have been glorious, Skink mused. Maybe they’ll show up in a surgical textbook.

This is top-notch writing, a righteous revenge fantasy for us to gloriously share.  I’ll not say anything else about the main story line (“This is the most ridiculous kidnapping in history”) and denouement – the sassy and suss Ann, the wretched ‘star’ Cherry Pie (a BLS brand: ‘Barely Legal Slut’), the poor old paparazzo Bang Abbott (gross indeed, but you feel for him in the end), Cherry’s management teams’ stratagems, and many other seriously funny characters and side stories (like a brief hilarious episode in rehab).

I’ll leave ‘Star Island‘ with Chemo, bodyguard – main task to stop her from partying – to the awful Cherry.  Chemo’s physical details are something else in themselves.  However:

“I’ve been making a list in my head,” Chemo said. […]
“Like, what kinda list?” Cherry asked, and he touched the end of the cattle prod to her bare thigh. She made a noise like a chicken going under the wheels of a truck, and pitched over sideways in the patio chair.
“Every time you say like, I prod your ass,” he explained. “Also on the list: awesome, sweet, sick, totally, and hot. Those are for starters.
She stopped writhing for a minute or so. Her first breathless words were: “What the fuck, dude?”
“That’s another one – dude. Consider yourself warned.”

Don’t you just wish? 

Margaret Atwood‘s ‘The handmaid’s tale‘ (1985)  is a fine, chilling and (maybe) heartening novel.  I read it for the Book Group; some of us liked to think the ending was optimistic.  Classic dystopian/totalitarian moments – I immediately recalled the smell of real coffee from Orwell’s ‘1984’ – handled beautifully, from significant eye contact, little human moments and things, through to the realisationof the existence of a resistance movement, joining and jeopardy.

The setting is one region in North America (Canada – Atwood is Canadian – has escaped the madness, as has the UK).  What has happened is the result of a strange mix of environmental disaster (and consequent falling birth rates), patriarchal Christian fundamentalism and the Andrea Dworkin strand of feminism (remember ‘All men are rapists’?).  It is the handmaids’ role to formally do their appointed duty and procreate with their allotted master, taking no pleasure from the act, in a set of  bizarre rituals coldly and brutally played out.  I was miserable and elated, up and down, gripped, as the tale progressed.

Atwood gives a wry take, too, on ’60s and ’70s excesses in describing how this state of things came to pass.  As well as the formal societal relations of men and women she does not fail to address the personal in recollections of the past.  In the Reading Group someone asked if I – the only male in the group – felt I was under attack in this book.  My response: no, her sympathies are there for us all.

As it happens, apart from Scrabble, the books share another tangential and obscurely personal link – two of my favourite recordings, no less.  ‘A handmaid’s tale‘ is set in the Republic of Gilead; I love Nina Simone singing ‘Balm in Gilead‘, real aural balm from the emotional ‘Baltimore‘ album, the production on which she reportedly denounced – don’t trust her, trust your ears.  Added poignancy to the reading, that beautiful rendering of the tune never far from my mind’s ear every time Gilead is mentioned.  And in ‘Star Island‘, the name Ann DeLusia, once seen: how to keep the beautiful melodic swell of John Cale‘s sublime  ‘Andalucia‘ from his exceptional (and he white-suited on the cover) ‘Paris 1919‘ album out of one’s head, especially as she grows (“scrappy and funny and proud“) and wins Skink’s and Chemo’s (and our) hearts.

Oh yes, and mention of a white suit reminds me.  Carl Hiaasen, a true campaigning heir to the spirit and vernacular genius of Mark Twain.

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A fine summer evening spent in the company of the Bard in the idyllic setting of the Temple of Venus at Stowe Landscape Gardens last Saturday.  The Chapterhouse Theatre Company‘s  hugely enjoyable production of ‘Much ado about nothing‘  hit the spot nicely, engaging both heart (a surprise) and funny bone.  Hero and Benedick one of the great romantic pairings, with Edwin Wright outstanding as the latter.  When they work – and I’ve yet to be disappointed – there is something about a small group of travelling players, taking multiple roles, scampering around, fleshing out the words with all sorts of stage business, that gives a glimpse of what it must have been like to be in the audience back in the day when Willie the Shake himself toured the land with his band of merry men, which can only be a good thing.  The swans, as they came in for their evening flight over the lake, became part of the performance.

I probably first encountered Shakespeare in the pages of a Classics Illustrated comic, those  graphic renderings “Featuring Stories by the World’s Greatest Authors”.   A couple of books I’ve read lately have got me reminiscing about a ’50s childhood and how I got into reading for pleasure.  Though there weren’t that many books around the house, I was taken to the library and my parents subscribed to a children’s book club for a while, but nothing much specific springs to mind.  Jennings, certainly, and Enid Blyton (the Seven; I never graduated to the Five), but what I do remember are the comics.  Not just the worthy Eagle (those centre spreads on my bedroom wall), but the less glossy stuff like Wizard (bizarrely “Tupper of the track” still sticks in the memory), Hotspur and Rover.   And the aforementioned Classics Illustrated.  Did I discover them for myself?  Can’t remember, but they were certainly my introduction to ‘proper’ Literature with a capital ‘L’.  All the covers of these splendid publications are there to be seen again on the web, but even better, they’re being re-published,  digitally remastered re-issues on shiny paper even.  I couldn’t resist.  Looking at their version of one of my favourite books – Mark Twain‘s ‘The adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘ – I can’t find much to fault or off the top of my head anything of narrative consequence omitted in its packing in of the tale in 47 three to six panel pages.  The art’s not prize-winning but it does the job.  Nice to be reacquainted.

And similarly, briefly, having ignored it for decades I now find myself a regular reader of Private Eye again.  I can only put it down to and the coming of the coalition government and needing all the ammunition one can get; should, of course, have trusted Hislop and pals all along on New Labour and Brown.  Oh, and along with making some progress with the ukulele – my guitar now seems incredibly jangly – I’m learning a smattering of Latin.  Ukulele – never again will I screw up a crossword by spelling it wrongly.

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It’s one of those questions.  If you could be in another time, another place … where, when?  OK.  In the audience at one of Mark Twain‘s public lectures.  His best writing is vernacular anyway;   it’s how he – without resorting to hyperbole, of course – forged an original American literature.  When he gets one on it’s like Bob Dylan in full rhythmic flow.  I’ve always thought that was half of Dylan’s brilliant charm, his ability to totally inhabit a song, a performance like ‘Black crow blues‘ on ‘Another side’, or ‘From a Buick 6‘ from ‘Highway 61 revisited’, where the sheer momentum takes you with him. Miniature masterpieces like those span all the decades, never mind the wordsmithery, breeding an infectiousness that makes the musicians around him gel, hit such a loose and lithe unique groove.  I’ve long thought the Twain/Dylan connection one worth  exploring – surely one the Dylans in ‘Chronicles‘ is Huckleberry Finn? – and it’s one I would urge on future interviewers to pursue.

I’ve been reading what is a collection of, for want of a better word, Mark Twain‘s outtakes, stuff that for one reason or another has never been widely published until now.  ‘Who is Mark Twain‘ (HarperStudio, 2009) contains a rich mix of short pieces of journalism, fiction and comment, some unfinished, that are not exactly essential to the canon but are still full of interest and to which I am sure I will return.  It kicks off with a delicious sketch for a lecture he never actually gave about his first public lecture – hence why I started this post as I did.   There’s a squib here just called ‘Jane Austen‘ wherein he basically absolves me, wipes a whole area of my conscience clean.  I have always felt guilty about not having read any Jane Austen.  Actually, I may have read one once but I can’t remember anything about it and it obviously didn’t inspire me to do more. Now, of me it cannot be said, as the waitress said to the bard in Dylan’s immense ‘Highlands‘, “You don’t read women authors, do you?”.  Nevertheless:

“Whenever I take up ‘Pride and prejudice’ or ‘Sense and sensibilty’, I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

My heart leaps!  I trust and love this man.  She’s off the list, I just don’t care anymore.  Austen fans of a nervous disposition better avert your eyes now from this pearl, from Twains travelogue of 1897, ‘Following the equator‘:

“Jane Austen‘s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

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